Pagan: Ultima VIII (DOS)

79
Critic Score
100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
3.8
User Score
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  Cor 13 (173954)
Written on  :  May 08, 2004
Platform  :  DOS
Rating  :  4.5 Stars4.5 Stars4.5 Stars4.5 Stars4.5 Stars

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Summary

Meet the action RPG colossus of its era

The Good

Pagan is the most controversial Ultima game, and is regarded by many fans as the lowest point of the series. The nickname "Super Mario Avatar" says it all. As soon as the game was released, accusations began to gush from sides: the jumping is ridiculous; my Avatar doesn't behave like an Avatar any more; this isn't real role-playing; Iolo, Shamino, and Dupre aren't there; Lord British, what hast thou done, etc.

Now, I can't deny that the change in gameplay compared to the previous entry in the series was perhaps too drastic to even justify the game's inclusion in it. That by itself, however, means only that Pagan has a strong chance of being considered a weak sequel. It doesn't speak for or against the actual game - it all depends on whether its new gameplay system is good or not. And it's very good, indeed.

The dissimilarity to earlier Ultimas and the ensuing rage of the fans prevented us from recognizing the game's undeniable significance. In retrospect, it becomes clear that Pagan was one of the founding fathers of modern action role-playing. Action RPGs had existed before - Falcom developed a whole sub-kind in Japan, and there were several examples in the West as well. But none of them came close to the rough, almost visceral treatment of Pagan. Action became an inseparable part of navigation and challenge, a key modifier that made the connection between the player and the protagonist closer than ever before - except, naturally, in the revolutionary Ultima Underworld games. In the realm of 2D games, however, that was an unsurpassed achievement: before Diablo conquered the world with its mad hack-and-slash, Pagan already delivered a serious action RPG formula that was in many ways deeper and more versatile.

I consider the addition of jumping and climbing a noteworthy enhancement of game mechanics. Most people ridiculed those new features. Maybe they could have been better executed (the Avatar is very clumsy, perhaps deliberately so), but the addition of physical interaction with the environment is a very important element. It creates a whole new dimension next to the already amazing interaction possibilities Ultima series has been offering in their later installments.

In Pagan, you can do even more things than before! It doesn't look this way because there aren't as many items and people in this game as there were in previous Ultimas, but the fact is that all the great interaction we were used to is still there - it wasn't "replaced" by jumping and climbing. You can still pick up any item you want and place it wherever you want. There are still a lot of things which are "just there", which you can examine and manipulate the way you like. And now fancy being able to climb on top of any building, or imagine how much more realistically treacherous dungeon navigation becomes when you are bound by physical laws.

The game's world is indeed smaller than in any previous Ultima and may seem monotonous, but it's still rich and detailed. There is a quite a bit of exploration to do in the game - Pagan is full of mysterious, dark locations, some of which are not necessary to visit in order to complete the game, like Pit of Death or the huge Slayer Dungeon. The flora of the game is unique (unlike the somewhat ordinary fauna - we've seen enough skeletons and trolls before), and the overall appearance is very original and stylish. This leads to another significant contribution of Pagan to the series - atmospheric immersion.

Pure, sensual atmosphere was not really important in Ultima games. Crafting detailed environments and abundance of items and creatures was more important than trying to actually express the serene beauty of hills, mountains, and rivers, or reflect the horrors of a dungeon. Not so in Pagan. The moment you start the game you realize you are in a bizarre, hostile world. The game is romantically dark and threatening, its stylish design including such strange and expressive things as deep, unnaturally dark blue water, or huge mushrooms growing everywhere. The technical quality of the graphics (which is clearly superior to than of the two previous Ultimas), is not the only reason for that. The designers tried to show maximum contrast between Britannia and Pagan, and they succeeded by creating a new original world.

The storyline of Pagan also appears to be simple and straightforward at first, but think of all the extensive background information we get in the game! In order to fully understand and enjoy this story it is necessary to listen carefully to what the characters tell you, and read books that are scattered all over the game. Thankfully, there are plenty of books in Pagan, ranging from simple magical instructions to detailed history of the world's culture.

Spellcasting in Pagan is deeper than entire gameplay systems of some other games. In order to flee from the unfriendly world you must become proficient in three kinds of magic - Necromancy, Theurgy, and Sorcery. Each one of the three types is unique, having its own spells and casting technique. Earth magic is the closest to the standard Ultima system: you mix reagents and prepare expendable spells. In order to be able to cast air spells, you must make foci out of silver ore, which then become extremely powerful magical spell-containing items of infinite charge. Fire magic system (Sorcery) is the most complex one. You put red and black candles at the corners of a pentagram, place required reagents near the candles, and then focus the spell on objects such as wand, rod, etc. Upon successful preparation of the spell, those objects become magically enchanted, allowing you to cast a limited amount of the spells they hold. Mastering fire magic is very difficult, but quite rewarding.

The Bad

So what is really wrong with Pagan? Not much if we see it as a standalone game; a lot if we recognize the legacy it claims to belong to. Almost every fan of the series will tell you the same thing: Pagan may be great in what it's trying to do, but it's not a true Ultima game.

Most of the game's flaws, therefore, become glaring only in the light of comparison. For example, an atmospheric dungeon crawler would probably work regardless of how many friendly NPCs it has and what they tell you. But when we compare Pagan to the magnificent worlds of earlier Ultimas, we begin to see the difference. The interaction with its citizens is noticeably more scarce; most people won't talk to you at all or say a few rude words. You will rarely see people on the streets, except professionals like guards and beggars in Tenebrae or various kinds of magicians in other places. There is no day and night cycle. Even a minor detail such as the absence of character portraits contributes to unpleasant coldness.

Pagan is also too small for an Ultima world. There is only one real city in the whole game, the rest of the settlements being tiny enclaves of necromancers and sorcerers. A very large portion of the game is occupied by a gigantic dungeon, the Catacombs, which is the only way to reach the key locations you'll have to access. The constant crawling through grim caves can get tiresome after a while.

The new "Super Mario Avatar" gameplay is not flawlessly executed, either. Before you bash it for being difficult and lacking grace, remember that - despite the derogatory nickname - it was never intended to mimic fast-paced platform games. That said, be sure to play the patched version of the game, because the Avatar is clumsy and hard to manipulate beyond any justification in the original release. Even in their post-patch state, controls can feel awkward and counter-intuitive. Sometimes you press down both mouse buttons four-five times in a row until our hero finally decides whether he wants to jump, climb, or just stand there, shaking his horned-helmeted head. Many times I was attacked by ghouls or skeletons from behind, but it took me several attempts to position myself properly and start teaching them lessons. If you miss the proper angle by an inch, the Avatar will begin to hit the air repeatedly, stupidly turning his back to the foe and moaning loudly whenever he gets hit.

Finally, Pagan lacks connection to the series' lore and abandons many concepts we loved and cherished in the previous installments. The word "Avatar", in particular, became nothing more but an empty formula, a kind of an abstraction that can be filled with any possible meaning. If a newcomer to the series were exposed to this iteration only, he would invariably conclude that an Avatar is a fairly brutal, rugged warrior whose main joy consists of angering powerful supernatural creatures and wreaking havoc in foreign lands.

The Bottom Line

As an Ultima game, Pagan is too atypical, delivering a "cultural shock" to the series' passionate fans. But taken separately, it is a rich and important game that did a lot of things we either take for granted now or don't even dare to demand any more. You can whine all you want about the Avatar losing his humility, but that does not change the fact that Pagan is a great action RPG ahead of its time.